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Politics

Few left unscathed in Arambula trial, which cleared lawmaker of child cruelty charge

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California state Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, center, with his attorneys Margarita Martinez-Baly and Michael Aed as his not-guilty verdict is read Thursday.
(John Walker / Associated Press)

A Fresno jury rejected a charge of child abuse against Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula this week, but the case left Central Valley officials bitterly divided and could dog both the Democratic legislator and the local prosecutor for years to come.

A not-guilty verdict Thursday allowed Arambula to retain his seat in the state Legislature but at some cost to his family and his reputation. For Fresno County Dist. Atty. Lisa Smittcamp, the finding could bolster the defense’s argument that the charges were politically motivated.

“I think it’s something that both of them are going to have to continue to answer to,” said David Mugridge, a criminal defense attorney in Fresno who closely followed the case. “It’s not going away.”

Police arrested Arambula at his daughter’s elementary school on Dec. 10 after she alleged that her father hit her on the face, his ring leaving a 1-inch bruise, the night prior. The prosecution’s case largely hung on the girl’s testimony and her tone changed on the stand during her father’s trial when she largely described the incident as an accident.

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Arambula is the son of Juan Arambula, a well-known local politician, and represents a safe Democratic seat in the Central Valley, a region of the state historically known for its conservative leanings. Smittcamp is a registered Republican and the daughter-in-law of a prominent local GOP donor, but has denied that politics played any role in her choice to try the case.

After months of mudslinging in the media and an intense case that publicly pitted a father against his 7-year-old daughter, Smittcamp stood by her decision.

“I just think the most important thing to say about this trial is it was the job of the Fresno County district attorney’s office to give this little girl a voice, and that’s the justice in this,” Smittcamp said. “We gave her a voice.”

Arambula, a 42-year-old medical doctor, thanked his loved ones and said the experience “has only strengthened us as a family, and me as a father, a son and a husband.”

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The case drew attention across the state — a rarity for a misdemeanor trial — and raised questions about appropriate corporal punishment, parental rights, police overreach and local politics.

Arambula maintained his innocence from the time of his arrest through the end of the trial. The assemblyman took an unpaid leave of absence after Smittcamp charged him with willful cruelty to a child on March 12, three months after he was arrested.

The legislator and his attorneys in media interviews have cast him as a loving father and the victim of conservative authorities seeking to take down a high-profile Democrat.

The case’s impact on Arambula’s future could hinge on how Fresno voters view his handling of the allegations.

Child Protective Services removed his children from the family home for two days to conduct an investigation after his arrest. As part of his legal strategy, Arambula, his wife and other family members testified about his daughter’s difficult behavior in an effort by his defense attorneys to convince the jury that she lied to authorities.

“They did a great job tarnishing the little girl’s credibility, keeping in mind that she’s 7 years old,” Smittcamp said.

Despite the favorable verdict, many anticipate the case could resurface in ads on the campaign trail if he continues his political career. His defense has acknowledged that his reputation and family will never be the same.

“I think he does have a little bit of work to get his political career back on track because there certainly has been a considerable amount of negative publicity and a lot of people attacking him from the right without legitimate cause,” said Michael Evans, chairman of the Fresno County Democratic Party.

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Rich McIntyre, Arambula’s former campaign manager, agreed that the lawmaker’s future might not be unconditionally bright, but called the case “a hiccup” and said “he probably moves past it.”

Arambula is expected to return to work on Monday.

Many in political circles are looking to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) for clues as to whether Arambula will regain his standing in the Legislature. Shortly after the verdict was announced, Rendon referred to a jury trial as a “pillar of our criminal justice system.”

“In this case, a jury of peers found Joaquin Arambula not guilty of the accusations made against him,” Rendon said. “Having undergone this hardship, the Arambula family should be afforded the opportunity to heal and move forward.”

A spokesman for Rendon said no decision has been made as to whether Arambula will return to his post as chair of a key budget subcommittee on health, a role that the legislator had held for three years.

An attorney for Arambula questioned why the district attorney pressed charges in the first place.

“I find it difficult to believe that they believed they could prove this case,” said Margarita Martinez-Baly, his defense attorney. “They have an ethical obligation to not file cases they don’t feel they can prove.”

Martinez-Baly and the defense team criticized what they described as an insufficient police investigation during the trial. The defense said Child Protective Services allowed the children to return home two days after Arambula’s arrest and closed the case in March, citing insufficient evidence of physical abuse, because they conducted a more extensive investigation.

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The verdict allows Arambula and his supporters to continue to claim the charges were politically motivated — a line that could resurface in Smittcamp’s future. Arambula’s attorneys alleged that a responding police officer appeared excited when he learned the Democratic legislator was the father of the young girl.

“There is certainly ammunition provided to anyone who wants to call this political,” Mugridge said.

But Mugridge also acknowledged that if Smittcamp had declined to press charges against Arambula, she would have been accused of giving a politician special treatment.

“I think, frankly, I would have criticized her if she had not tried to prosecute him,” he said.

Smittcamp said her personal politics did not play any role in her decision to charge the legislator. She argued that Arambula’s voting record closely aligns with recommendations by the California District Attorneys Assn. and she would be “foolish” to charge him if the decision was based on politics.

Smittcamp said she still believes Arambula is responsible for his daughter’s bruise and reiterated the prosecution’s assertion that the child’s grandmother coached her to change her story.

“Joaquin Arambula knows what happened in that bedroom that day,” she said. “He knows it, and if he didn’t injure his daughter, then good for him. He’s vindicated. If not, then he has to live with that.”

More stories from Taryn Luna »

taryn.luna@latimes.com

Follow @tarynluna on Twitter.


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